Well, that time has finally come. After hitting at every single level for the past four years, Greg Bird has reached the big leagues. He will likely serve as a backup to Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who will require some time off as the Yankees head down the stretch. And because of the slump this team is in, they could use the break.
Bird was drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, and the organization went over-slot for him to the tune of a $1.1 million signing bonus. He was lauded for his bat even then, and they figured that type of money would be enough to sway him from attending Arkansas. It obviously was, and it has worked out marvelously so far. He has hit at least 133 wRC+ or better at every level he has played at so far, and this year he hit .258/.358/.445 at Double-A ,and most recently hit .301/.353/.500 with Triple-A.
Considering the expectations everyone had before the season began, this is no surprise. Look, for example, at the pre-season profile from Kiley McDaniel:
"I got reports that Bird looked like a young, healthy version of Nick Johnson... Bird has an advanced feel for the strike zone and is more of a hitter who has power than a slugger that swings from his heels... Upside: .275/.360/.470, 25 homers."
Even though there were clear concerns about his health and the fact he would only be a first baseman, the consensus was that if he continued to rake, he would naturally find a way to make the big league roster. That is also why McDaniel pegged him as a 50 future value, and most reputable scouts around the web have said he is in the 40-50 range. But as we all know, there is a big difference between 40 and 50, and the Yankees have just about a full calendar year to decide which category he falls into.
Replacing Mark Teixeira will be a daunting task going into 2017, and the Yankees are hoping to avoid the Red Sox's mistake of a Jackie Bradley Jr.-for-Jacoby Ellsbury swap, thinking that a good prospect could automatically replace a good player. We have no idea the type of player Bird will be at the big league level, but at least he isn't being tossed straight into the fire.
If we were to speculate based on available projections, the outlook isn't bad whatsoever. According to PECOTA, Bird is expected to hit .234/.330/.417, and ZiPS would say .231/.319/.407. That's about league average. If his job is just to fill in here and there for Teixeira and A-Rod, then a league average bat isn't great, but it's better than what they got from Garrett Jones. And according to PECOTA's long-term projections (this was based on pre-season numbers, so take this with a grain of salt) Bird would compile 5.5 WARP over the course of his six years of team control. If we adjust slightly higher for his excellent numbers in Double-A and Triple-A, it's probably closer to 6.0. That would be about 1 WARP per year, which is what one would expect from a very conservative projection system.
First base prospects are difficult to peg. Because they have essentially no defensive value (and by the look of Bird, his will be limited as well), hitting is of the utmost importance. And even league average offense isn't good enough for the long term. If a first baseman does not hit at 120 wRC+ or better, they likely won't be a regular player. Even great prospects like Jon Singleton can come up and hit 79 wRC+, but that's about the worst case scenario. As a Yankees fan I am excited for the entrance of Greg Bird, but I also have the tempered expectations that come with every great prospect's call-up.
Finding a regular, cost-controlled first baseman is incredibly difficult, and if you don't shell out a ton of money for a free agent, the only real solution is converting a player from another position or finding stop-gaps. If Greg Bird can develop into a solid regular, then the Yankees could seamlessly transition out of the Teixeira era. And once his salary is off the books, that could give the front office the flexibility to improve on even more fronts. The Yankees paid $1.1 million for the privilege of developing Bird, and now they hope to see this project through until its conclusion.